Monday, February 23, 2009

Why ELCA Worship Is Plummeting

Shrimp here, with some help from The Lutheran magazine.

The current issue (March 2009) includes this feature story, "Downside of worship. We were particularly struck by the subhead:
Average worship attendance plummets — here's a glimpse why
Writes Associte Editor Julie Sevig
Since 2002 average worship attendance at ELCA congregations has taken an Olympic-size dive. In 2001 average attendance was up slightly. But it took a downward turn the following year, and figures compiled by ELCA Research and Evaluation last fall say average attendance is down 45,000 (from 144 per congregation to 131).
That's a 9% drop.
The figures aren't much different from those of other mainline denominations, said Kenneth Inskeep, executive for Research and Evaluation. And they're a sign of weak ties to the church and a church that's not evangelizing. Many nonattenders are young adults or retirees whose attendance lapsed after their children were confirmed, he said.

Stephen P. Bouman, executive director of Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission, notes a shift in the culture that once supported the churchgoing of emerging generations. "We've also lost our evangelizing power [and] that effort to instill the faith and practices of discipleship in our children and today's emerging generation," he added.

Bouman said the downward trend is a call to renew efforts to teach and model the faith. "There is a particular connection between vitality and attendance at worship and the connection a congregation has in mission to its community."
Then the article gets really interesting.
The Lutheran asked, "If you used to be a regular worshiper, what made you stop?" on Facebook and Twitter — realizing the sought-after constituents might not be regular readers of The Lutheran.

Non-churchgoers from Washington, California, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona and Florida also told us what they miss, how they tend to their spiritual needs and what might bring them back.
Ready or not, here they come! Er, here they stay home.
A variety of reasons
Jeff Yoder, Fort Wayne, Ind., said his family stopped attending worship because they weren't being spiritually fed. "Our congregation seems to be controlled by
long-standing, wealthy members who don't want change," he said. "We need to modernize a bit if we're going to survive."

Shelly Coonrod, Findlay, Ohio, said she feels obligated to occasionally attend. But she gets more out of gathering with friends in a home they call "The Curry House."

"We talk about the Bible, what's going on in our lives, what we feel God is doing and a variety of nonreligious topics," she said. "We do everything from deep prayer to dancing. It's relaxed, entertaining and full of serious worship. Amazingly, non-Christians have shown up, and they have been introduced to God. Of course, this is all done in the presence of authentic Indian curry. We help each other, without anger or judgment. Not that we don't correct one another, but we do so in a kinder way than church would. It's ... amazing."

Coonrod said church pretentiousness ("Everyone tries to act so perfect"), and a lack of Bible study and friendliness drove her away. "I can be a child, a teen, a middle-aged adult, but I can't be a young, single person," she said. "It's very annoying. It excludes me from so much."

Danielle Robinson, Lake Stevens, Wash., stopped worshiping when her much-loved pastor left. She was a liberal at a conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod congregation and the pastor respected her beliefs. Since then she's stayed away because churches were too far away — logistically and politically/theologically. "I would go to worship easily if I knew it would be just like Holden Village [in Chelan, Wash.] — colorful, artsy, interactive and slightly unpredictable," she said.

George Roberts, Mesa, Ariz., said he's been a card-carrying Lutheran 56 of his 58 years. "But I can't be sure I'll ever get back," he wrote, adding his gratitude for the chance to respond to such a question. "There doesn't seem to be a forum for this kind of discussion in our churches."

Roberts wrestles with the virgin birth and the substitutionary blood atonement of Christ. "We have forgotten to ask questions, or are afraid to, in regard to our faith, belief systems, creeds, etc. ... It was difficult for me to face my early fears of questioning my orthodox theological system, but I have found it to be an enlightening, learning and freeing experience," he said. "God is big enough to handle our fear, anger and questions. Too many of us aren't."

Carolyn Morrow said her family moved to Florida and simply didn't connect with the local church. "After awhile we quit trying," she said. Morrow misses the liturgy and music, adding, "I'd return to the church to participate in Bible study and worship if there was no expectation for more commitment from me. We are involved in helping others—those of our own choosing—and we do that freely and regularly."
So, what have we learned so far?

If your congregation honks off someone, not only is he leaving your church, he's leaving all of them in town.

Duty-bound folks'll show up now and again, but they want a comfortable place with an informal and unstructured atmosphere (an Indian spice seems to be key) and with no negative vibes.

A snooty church teaches the young to be snooty—elsewhere on Sunday mornings.

Two examples of people who stopped going because they actually believed something other than what the church taught.

Someone who misses the church in their old town, and would come back as long as no commitment was expected.

Incidentally, we just noticed that we are writing this on the commemoration of Polycarp, one of the martyrs of the very ancient church. Proving that someone has a sense of irony.

The final two reasons are genuinely sad. A man "who once loved and participated in church life, descended into alcoholism and no longer feels worthy to attend."
...when I've gone to service, the hymns and the liturgy bring me to tears, and I can't bear the guilt and shame. ... I now attend only when my sons have a role — as acolyte or in the handbell choir. At those times, I am happy and proud of them, and fearful for myself. I wish I could go and accept God's forgiveness and love.
And a family that left because
Churches have become businesses, more interested in increasing membership and offerings than in being the warm, safe, friendly environments of the churches I grew up attending. ... We have probably been to our [current] church four times since [last spring] and not once has anyone called to inquire as to whether we're OK," she said. ... A return to tradition and a feeling that I actually mattered and wasn't just a number or a wallet [would bring me back]," she said.
The article closes with the stories of two who appear to have come back. The wife of a seminarian who figures that as a pastor's wife she'll be expected to attend. And a woman who "found her way back after a two-year lapse" to a church that was two congregations merging together and in the process of calling a new pastor.

And thus ends the article.

Shrimp hopes you've been enlightened by this glimpse from the latest issue of The Lutheran and you are now better armed to reverse this trend. And, as you are reading the other blog entries we've made the last few days, you might want to recall that we've written about the author before. Of course, that's a completely unrelated matter.

Of course.

Shrimp out.


Anonymous said...

The one thing I picked up in this is that, "it's all about me; what I want....what I feel."

Artsy and unpredictable? That's worship?

Eric Swensson said...

Good insights into the culture the leadership of the ELCA is convinced we need to reproduce throughout our congregations. To me is seems not only superficial, wrong and highly unlikely to get any footing, but all indications (empirical evidence) show this is not what people are looking for.

wildiris said...

Facebook and Twitter constitute a very self-selected sample set and these kinds of random anecdotal responses are useless when it comes to drawing any conclusions.

If anyone in the ELCA really wants to know how to bring people to Christ, rather than just inventing excuses for their own poor performance, all they have to do is look around and see which Churches and outreach missions are being successful. Joyce Meyer brings the Gospel message to thousands every week, but too many ELCA Lutherans seem to look down their noses at her ministry. Up the road from me are two churches, both with congregations bursting out of their buildings. One is an Assembly of God Church. While the other is a Church of Divine Light (or something). Its pastor is a black lesbian preacher. Its message is as PC and new age as you could imagine. What do both of these churches have in common? They actually believe in something!!!

Maybe the ELCA could suggest that its congregations might try that approach. Wow, what a concept, a church that actually says what it believes and believes what it says? Oh, wait, isn’t that the same thing as being a confessional church, exactly what we Lutherans, by definition, were supposed to be in the first place?

Anonymous said...

Oh I get it, I get it. Ms. Sevig fails to discuss the elephant in the room. Golly geewhilikers! Why? The link to the other article says it all.

I agree with wildiris. I am not on either facebook or twitter, neither is my wife, mother, brother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, etc. All of these people are good ELCA members who, if they left, would never have their opinions measured.

How thoroughly modern to have conducted a survey. The only facts discernable are the charts. Wow, what happened in 2000 and 2001.

Oh I know, I know, I know...

Anonymous said...

Hi -- First, a question: What does the "E" in ELCA really mean? Does it mean seeing how many people we can entice to show up for an hour of religious entertainment and help with the expenses? Or does it mean that we are planning to go to Heaven when we die and would like to take as many people with us as possible?
Second, some advice. Trust God's word over man's word. Teach God's word, not man's word. Forget trying to get the Church to conform to the current culture, be the driving force to create a Christian culture! Believe God's word, and let it show! That would be a healthy start...

The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
Or the Shellfish blog...